Rowan Williams shares one of his most poignant memories.
The church’s role today in the common good will vary a lot from context to context and country to country. And in an environment like the United Kingdom at the moment, it’s of course quite a lot of the time very directly involved in the frontline of social care and social security. In this city, we have a city food bank for people living in poverty which is sponsored by three local churches, one Church of England, one Roman Catholic, one independent new church, a very good example, I think, of very different communities coming together to do things together. And I think it works in this country partly because people think that the church, for all its failings and all its oddities, is still there in some sense for the good of the community. It hasn’t got an axe to grind for this or that group in society.
But transfer all that to a context like Peru or South Sudan or the Melanesian islands, and what you see there of course is that the church is absolutely central to civil society. That’s where people learn the skills and capacity of running their own lives, making a difference in society. And especially in a lot of African settings that I’ve seen close-to, particularly post-conflict societies, what you see is the church – especially the women’s organisations of the church – having a really pivotal role in dealing with the fallout of the long-term tragic consequences of war. Rehabilitating child soldiers, dealing with issues about women who have been raped and abused, standing out against domestic violence and gender-based violence, training women in small-scale co-operative economics – the church is at the forefront of all that.
One of my most poignant memories is an evening in the Democratic Republic of Congo a few years ago with about forty young people, all of whom had been abducted as children to work in militias of various kinds. They’d all been child soldiers. They’d all been brutalised; they’d all themselves been the victims of unspeakable violence, and they’d inflicted terrible things on others. They’d been drawn back into the village society because the churches had been there for them. One after another they said, “Well, if it hadn’t been for that we’d still be living in hell”. And when people ask me about the justification of the Christian church’s existence, actually, it’s those people I think of.